Dubai is a hub for the global economy in the 21st century. New archaeological evidence shows it
A major archaeological discovery in Dubai is helping to rewrite the city’s history after revealing the existence of a rich culture and an advanced civilisation dating back thousands of years.
1. A major archaeological discovery of Iron Age relics in Dubai is rewriting the city’s history
2. The relics show Dubai had trading connections with some of the great ancient civilisations of Mesopotamia, Iran and the Indus Valley.
3. The discovery of trade was a turning point in the civilisation
The Iron Age site at Saruq Al Hadid, located about 70km south of Dubai on the edge of the Empty Quarter, was discovered in 2002.
Finally, after more than a decade of a meticulous inventory process, many of the unearthed artefacts are now being housed in a new museum in Dubai, the Saruq Al Hadid Archaeology Museum.
Excavations of the site have unearthed artefacts revealing that Dubai had trading connections with some of the great ancient civilisations of Mesopotamia, Iran and the Indus Valley.
The artefacts include sophisticated gold jewellery and crafted metal objects, which indicate a level of industrial science and religious belief that was quite advanced.
One of the central discoveries is that a snake cult existed among the nomadic peoples of the Peninsula. Snakes were seen as symbols of fertility and water, possibly of life itself, even a source of power. The site dates back more than 4,000 years to a time when the desert landscape of Dubai was a shrub land, or savannah, still inhabited by wild animals and with a more accessible supply of water.
Saruq Al Hadid was a centre for copper smelting and a transit point for travellers as well as a seasonal settlement area.
For thousands of years, the ancient site, which covers many historical periods, has been protected from decay and wind exposure by a slag heap, the crusted fragments of waste metal left behind by the smelting process.
Underneath the slag are to be found artefacts that include copper and bronze items as well as iron, and even some steel implements, wooden objects, ceramics, beads, shells and bones.
The form of these artefacts varies. Axe heads, arrowheads, knives, swords, fishhooks, bracelets and pots and daggers have been found, just a small fraction of the total that also includes gold jewellery and offering stands.
For archaeologists, these artefacts provide insights into Iron Age society, a period of civilisation in Arabia that dates between 1200 BCE to 500 BCE.
This period yielded new metallurgical techniques for creating better cutting tools and weapons, developments that revolutionised human society. Yet Iron Age cultures across the globe were also characterised by new practices in agriculture, different religious beliefs, and new artistic styles.
It was a time when Ancient Greece flourished, when the Zoroastrian religion in Iran began and when the great works of Indian religion, the Vedantas and Upanishads, were created. It was also the beginning of recorded history after the Bronze Age Cuneiform and Hieroglyphic scripts were replaced in many cultures with the Phoenician alphabet.
In the Arab world after 1000 BCE, archaeologists believe there was also a turning point in civilisation. The population began to grow; camels were domesticated and a new system of irrigation using water channels, or falajs, began to improve agricultural production. The artefacts of the Saruq Al Hadid site provide clues to several puzzles about the Iron Age period in the region.
One is how water, fuel and ore were brought to the smelting site. The slag heap covers 1.5 hectares but it is located about 50 to 100 kilometres from the nearest supplies.
Apart from signs that tents or huts may have been used there, there are no traces of standing structures reflecting human habitation or storage capacity.
However, ancient wells discovered at the site may have supplied the water, and archaeologists such as Dr Hussein Qandil, the former director of Dubai's Department of Archaeology, have speculated that the desert's hardiest tree, the evergreen Ghaf tree, may have been the source of fuel.
Another key intrigue concerns the nature of the snake cult that may have existed on the Arabian Peninsula. The “theology” or religious beliefs underpinning the cult may never be known. What is known is that several sites on the Peninsula share the snake motif.
The discovery of bronze snake artefacts and pottery with snake images at Saruq Al Hadid has added to the information from other Iron Age sites in Dubai, at places such as Qusais and Masafi.
"A snake cult with iconography similar to that found at Saruq Al Hadid is also well documented in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Elam and the southern Levant," Dr Qandil said.
Snakes symbolise fertility and water, soil and groundwater and even protection - the very essence of life in an arid environment. Their ritual significance is revealing of the broader cultural forces.
Rashad Bukhash, the director of the Architectural Heritage Department at Dubai Municipality, suggests: "Maybe they were worshipping snakes or [regarded] a snake as something to protect them."
Just how the various Iron Age sites in Dubai and the UAE were connected is also an open question, as is the extent of the trade ties across land or sea to bigger civilisations, such as those in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq), Iran or India.
Wooden objects, for instance, likely to be from the eastern Mediterranean, have been found at the site. But most important are the more than 45 official seals from different nations, including Ancient Egypt.
Finally, there is the ultimate question about why so many valuable objects were left behind in the sands. Did some misfortune, environmental or otherwise, strike the settlement? And why did smelting start there in the first place?
Saruq Al Hadid was discovered by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, during a helicopter flight over the area.
A key artefact from the site is a small gold granulated “ring” that may have once have been part of a necklace. It is now the official logo of Dubai's Expo 2020 (a gathering of the best thinking, technology and artistic endeavours of more than 180 nations from October 2020 to April 2021), a fitting symbol of the real meaning of Saruq Al Hadid.
According to Mr Bukhash, the various gold rings indicate something very important about Iron Age culture in Dubai. "These were people with knowledge, people with science - [who knew] how to use the gold, how to melt the gold," he said.
"This was a kind of civilisation which graduated from a very simple kind of culture to a developed culture."